AS the security situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate, the prospect of foreign militants relocating there from conflict zones elsewhere is becoming more likely. That development is certain to have a dangerous spillover effect in the region, particularly in Pakistan where signs of an uptick in militancy are already being felt.

According to the 28th report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, prepared for the UN Security Council, so far there has been “only limited relocation” but it could increase “should the environment there become more hospitable to ISIL or groups aligned with Al Qaeda”.

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The report also says that Al Qaeda is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces, and that in Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces, its Indian Subcontinent chapter, or AQIS, “operates under Taliban protection” and consists mainly of Afghans and Pakistanis. If this is indeed the case, then the Afghan Taliban’s assurances to the US that they will not allow transnational Islamist outfits to operate from its soil cannot be taken at face value. Unlike the case with the militant Islamic State group, a comparatively new entrant in this conflict zone, the Afghan insurgents and Al Qaeda have had a mutually beneficial relationship which goes back decades. Those links have clearly endured and may even strengthen further.

Read: TTP maintains ties with Afghan Taliban, says report

It is also well known that the banned TTP has sanctuaries inside Afghanistan’s border areas, which neither the Afghan government — for strategic reasons — nor the Afghan insurgents — for ideological reasons — have tried to disturb. The fact that the Taliban, despite Pakistan’s support to them over the years, have never condemned any atrocity carried out by the TTP in this country should have been a telling indicator as to where their sympathies lay. As many analysts had long predicted, the ‘strategic depth’ policy is proving to have been a one-way street, affording the TTP space to regroup and replenish its ranks rather than bringing any discernible benefit to Pakistan.

The TTP was already in a resurgent mode after five splinter groups, including Jamaatul Ahrar and Hizbul Ahrar, returned to its fold some time last year in Afghanistan. The reunification, which may have increased the umbrella group’s strength to 6,000 armed fighters, was overseen by Al Qaeda. Several attacks in Pakistan have been claimed by the TTP over the past few months, perhaps due in part to this development. Worse may follow if the Taliban manage to seize control of Afghanistan.

The only possible way out of a scenario that threatens the hard-won peace against militancy in this country and could plunge the region into chaos once again, is for all sides to engage with the Afghan Taliban. In return for the economic cooperation that Afghanistan desperately needs, they must demand that the Taliban give iron-clad guarantees of reining in international militant groups on their soil. Otherwise, Pakistan’s worst fears may come true.

Published in Dawn, July 28th, 2021

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